For a lot of people, managing remote teams just started one day out of the blue. Office doors closed, telecommuting became the norm, and businesses moved forward in the face of a pandemic. For me, as someone who has been almost exclusively leading remote teams for more than 15 years, this really wasn’t a change. But, I’ve seen some of my colleagues who are more used to face-to-face employee and team contact struggle during the past few months.
Now, some businesses may flood back into office space as soon as they believe it’s safe, but many others are realizing that their teams are happier and more productive when working from their home offices. Everyone’s path forward is likely to be different; but for some leaders, what was once a big change may end up being the direction that their professional future takes from now on.
So, I want to share some of the ideas that have helped me to more easily manage remote teams:
Think about all of the ways people communicate when they are in the office. These situations don't go away just because everyone is sitting behind a computer with a chat tool. Evaluate the toolkit you offer to your remote workers. Does it really meet all their communication needs?
1. Build the right remote team toolkit.
Think about all of the different ways that people communicate when they are in the office. Sometimes they sit in big groups huddled together for hours as they try to come up with strategies and solutions. Other times, two or three gather together in working sessions to move projects forward in a more tangible way. And, at other times, a single person sits quietly pounding through their workload.
These situations don’t simply go away now that everyone is sitting behind a computer with a chat tool, so evaluate the toolkit you offer to your remote workers. Does it really meet all their communication needs? For me, these four are critical:
Video conferencing tool.
There is no substitute for being able to watch someone’s facial expressions during a meeting, so having a quality tool that maintains a strong connection, allowing all team members to turn on their video at once, is key for group discussions.
Remote work software.
You need a way to know who is doing what and what the status of each task is — and you can’t spend your whole day chasing after this information. A remote work management tool lets both internal and external (think customers or vendors) people add tasks and assign them to teams or individuals. As a manager, you can quickly find out who is doing what, balance workloads, get updates, etc.
It’s important to replace the “stop by my office/water cooler talk” communication option too. It makes it much easier for people to instantly bounce ideas off of one another or to ask questions that really don’t require an entire meeting. Plus, it cuts down on a lot of email bouncing back and forth since people can “talk” directly.
In person, brainstorming is easier: Throw everything on a white board and see what comes together. Find a solution for how to do this with remote teams so that everyone can offer ideas in a productive way during remote calls. Need a suggestion? I like Miro.
2. Focus on employee engagement. Productivity will follow.
It can be more difficult to tell if people are losing focus when they are not physically near you. This is why it is so important that you intentionally reach out and make sure people are doing OK — personally and professionally. A few related rules I try to follow:
- Schedule and be diligent about keeping your one-on-one meetings. Make sure everyone has a forum in which they feel comfortable expressing how they are doing.
- Respect employee boundaries. Don’t take advantage of the fact that people can be reached all day and all night simply because they work in the same place where they live. Set this expectation from the top down.
- Don’t multi-task during meetings. Instead, spend the time watching your teams’ interactions. See who is really involved and who is not.
- Ask questions. What do your employees struggle with when working at home? What is working well? How can you help?
A lot of the remote teams that I work with are scattered round the globe. Because of this, we rely heavily on writing things down so that decisions and status can be quickly referenced and work doesn't stall while waiting for input.
3. Use more documentation to keep everyone on the same page.
A lot of the remote teams that I work with are scattered round the globe. This means one person could be sleeping while another is focused in on a task. Because of this, we rely heavily on writing things down so that decisions and status can be quickly referenced and work doesn’t stall while waiting for input.
Meeting minutes…always kept! Tickets are used for tracking and updating one another about tasks. Shared company-wide calendars ensure everyone knows who is in the office and who is out of the office. We’re strict about this, because without proper documentation, it can be easy to have misinformation spreading from one person to the next when people work remotely.
4. Avoid micromanaging by encouraging transparency.
When you first start managing remote teams, it can be tempting to feel like you need to check up on everyone all the time. After all, if you can’t see what they are doing, and you aren’t hearing about it from the hallway buzz, how do you know that people are really getting their work done?
There’s a balance here. First, remember that you hired these people for their skills, expertise, and insights. They were getting their jobs done before they started telecommuting, so they are probably going to continue to do so now. You have to trust your virtual teams to perform in a professional and ethical way.
The other side of this is to encourage transparency among team members. Remind people to assign, track and document as much work as possible in your remote work management solution. As everyone develops this habit, it gives you the opportunity to review work, weigh in if needed, and keep things on track without people feeling like you’re constantly checking up on them.
5. Repeatedly reinforce the corporate culture.
Don’t give up on the concept of corporate culture. Corporate culture defines the values and core principles of your business. When it matches the needs and interests of your employees, they feel more enthusiastic about their roles — more part of something exciting that’s happening — and this in turn helps to keep your best workers on board.
When you’re working from your home, however, it can be easy to forget that you’re “part of something,” so it’s important that leaders consistently remind virtual teams about what’s important for the company, what’s happening and how it impacts them. Also, take time to share personal experiences and stories. Revisit the mission statement again and again. Encourage “remote offsites” where teams can talk about culture and share some “casual” conversation together.
How have things been for you? Was this a big change for your team or simply status quo? What other ideas and suggestions do you have that could help people who are just getting started in remote work management?